Saturday, August 30, 2008


There's a Japanese aesthetic known as shibumi (the adjective is shibui) that has to do with understated elegance, things that are so perfect and refined that they hide behind commonplace appearances and do not need further voice. To quote the author Trevanian, "... (deep) understanding rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence". "...modesty without prudency... elegant simplicity, articulate brevity." After considering this for a moment I realized that, among other things, it describes the perfect bodyguard. A protector so skilled in the art that he (or she) hides behind the facade of the commonplace, garnering no attention, no second looks, no bravado. He passes by without notice yet all the while effortlessly maintaining his thought and attention toward one single purpose.

Kindle Craving

I'm a gadget geek, I admit it. I'm attracted to bright, shinny things, and think Steve Jobs should be beatified. Nonetheless, my latest fascination is Amazon's Kindle, the wireless reading device that allows the user to browse, purchase, and download electronic forms of books and read them on the device. All of this is done wirelessly, without aid of a laptop or synching.

My attraction stems from the fact that when I travel I have to pack enough books to last me for the trip, and inevitably I'll run across other material that I want to read. It's not like there's a Barnes & Noble right down the street here in Baghdad so I'm forced to wait until I get home, which may often be several weeks. The reader will allow me to pack one device that may hold as many as 200-300 books, and give me the flexibility to download more as I find other reading that interests me. Perfect.

Most of the criticism of the Amazon device is centered on the design or the ergonomics. People have grown to expect the sleek, shinny objects coming out of the Apple shop, and the Kindle doesn't live up to those standards. I can get past this shortcoming as hauling an extra 10 lbs of books in my luggage is not exactly ergonomically friendly either. More to follow is the weeks to come, but until then I'm still relying on Johannes Gutenberg's contribution to society.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Littlest Indicator

An Iraqi boy smiles as he heads off onto the soccer field for an afternoon game.

I was answering a question for a friend last night on identifiable progress in Iraq, and I began thinking about the definition of "progress". In graduate school thirteen years ago the political science buzzword for progress was "development", and of course that meant various things to various people depending on what their viewpoint was. Some, including myself, approached development from an economic standpoint, others looked at social or political conditions, still more were concerned with infrastructure. All of these are good indicators to consider when determining the development or progress that is taking place in Iraq.

While there is not a catch-all indicator of development, there is one that is pretty close, the condition of a nation's children. My theory is that in every society it's citizens love their children, they provide for them, sacrifice for them, and therefor the kids become a great indicator of how well or not well the family is doing. Whenever I go to a new place I take note of the state of the children I see on the streets; are they clean, well-clothed, wearing shoes, going to school, too thin or too fat, open sores or lesions, are they smiling, condition of their teeth? All of this gives me a general impression that I believe lends insight to the country's over-all level of development. I know that it's a very general indicator, but so far it's worked for me.

Finally there is what the Brits refer to as a "knock-on affect" from happy, healthy children, because they grow up into happy, healthy adults and in turn raise thoughtful, educated children of their own.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Love and Marriage

I'm not sure why I like this shot, I just do. It was taken outside a church in Canada following a wedding.

While on the subject of marriages and weddings (It's been on my mind since I just had my 5th anniversary), I was considering the practice of arranged marriages. Some time ago I had the opportunity to question two reasonably educated and articulate Pakistani women about the topic that vexes so many westerners. I expected the women to give me only a lukewarm endorsement of arranged marriages, sticking to the Muslim party line, but instead both women were wholeheartedly supportive of the practice, and believed it superior in all ways to western traditional "love marriages", as they called them. Here's their argument:

In an arranged marriage all of the marital decisions are made, not by the young newlyweds, but by the the couple's parents. This alleviates the often divisive issues that young couples have to grapple with, i.e., money, children, living arrangements, jobs, etc... In the eyes of the two Pakistani women these issues are what cause so many "love marriages" to fail resulting in high divorce rates and single parent homes that are more prevalent in the west.

I then proceeded to ask some pointed questions; "You're going to college now, but after you get married will you work?" "If my husband allows it, yes, I would like to work". I got the same answer when I asked about travel as well. It appeared to me that women lead a progressive life, to an extent, right up until the point where they get married, and than it's all dependent on the wishes and whims of the husband. In other words, a woman can travel the world, and get a college education, but after she gets married she may in all likelihood sit home and raise children if that's the desire of the husband. Of course the husband is working and traveling as he sees fit.

Finally, I inquired about what is the most that they could hope for out of their arranged marriages. The answer was that their greatest wish is that their parents chose someone that was kind and gentle and that over time they would become close friends with their husbands. I choked a bit on that one.

So for me I found these two women's argument logically thought out and possibly making sense within the confines of their own religious culture. It was obvious that their viewpoint on "love marriages" and the west had been skewed a bit by their Muslim education and by what they may have seen on TV or at the movies. I felt that they didn't truly have a grasp on the western practice, and that the divisive issues that they felt tore families apart also served to bring them closer together, it all depending on the couple.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Child Brides

One of our Iraqi security operators took the day off yesterday so that he could attend his brother's wedding in a hotel in Baghdad. I asked him how the event went and he said that it was great, even some of the western media showed up for whom his brother works. I asked him, out of curiosity how old his brother was, and he replied 27. Then I asked about the bride, "Oh, she's 14". Huh?!

This is normal here in the Middle East, and you hear stories all of the time of children even younger than that, some as young as 11-years old, being married off to older men. Our co-worker claims that she loves her new husband, his brother, very much. One of the guys retorted that only last week she loved The Magic Pony.

In my opinion the entire practice of child brides is an extreme form of human rights abuse. I'm sorry but I can't give a shit less if the practice has it's roots in some hallowed religion or cultural history, it's a form of child abuse plain and simple. In extreme, but all to common cases, the girls can't take the abuse being doled out by their middle-aged husbands and flee back home to their families, who immediately stone them to death for bringing dishonor to the greater family. If you don't know how someone is stoned to death; they're buried in a hole up to their neck with only their head showing, and then people stand around and hurl big rocks until the person is dead. There's one documented incident of a father wrapping his "run away bride" daughter in bare copper wire and plugging it into the 220 volt socket and walking away.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Ugly Duckling

The Iraqi military has come a long way. It's soliders have picked up a lot of American-isms though.

I was watching some British news coverage this morning showing a 16-year old female suicide bomber that for one reason or another did not detonate herself. The footage was riveting and depicted two lightly armored Iraqi police officers striping the vest and clothes off the girl as she was still standing in the street. What caught my eye was the other 4-5 Iraqi police standing within 2-3 meters of the girl apparently watching and trying to act useful. What's to say that, as in many cases, she is not remotely detonated, killing the lot of them?

The Iraq police force is supposed to have undergone extensive training by the Coalition but instances like this make me wonder just how effective that training has been. I see Iraqi Police on a daily basis and I've yet to be impressed by anything that they've done. To me, an uninformed observer, they appear to be little more than disheveled thugs with guns who motor about the city with lights and sirens, firing their weapons into the air to force people to move out of their way. I see very little signs of a highly trained, professional, and disciplined force, one which is going to be necessary to assume the role of this county's primary security provider.

Progress is evident on all fronts, from education to infrastructure; the Iraqi Army looks to be a well-trained and equipped force; it's only the police that appear to be lagging far behind. It's too bad because the Police are Iraq's most visible public entity, one which could benefit the most from having its ducks well in order.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Driving Through Baghdad

A cracked plant pot sits in the sun with a small garden thriving inside.

We did a "windshield tour" of Baghdad this morning, visiting areas that we haven't been to lately and confirming routes and accessibility. The traffic was outrageous which is par for the course in the city. The white lines on the road are meaningless, and it's just an absolute food-fight on four wheels, everyone is trying to get ahead of the next guy.

There are plenty of people on the streets and all of the stores are open for business. The one thing that I noticed was that the Iraqi Police did not have as large a presence on the streets as it has in the past, when you would see dozens of blue and white SUVs bullying their way through traffic, automatic weapons hanging menacingly out open windows. Today I saw only pieces of that. The same is true for the American Army, it's presence was almost non-existant when compared to that of the Iraqi Army. I take all of that as a good sign.

Another particularity is that the majority of Iraqis don't have functioning air conditioning in their cars. When stuck in traffic they think nothing of getting out, leaving the doors open, and walking over to the water hose along side the road for a quick cool-down. It matters not if the traffic starts to move again, the Iraqi will get back to his car when he's ready. Everyone else must find their own way around his abandoned vehicle.

Finally, in the intersections you will normally find one or two disheveled Iraqi traffic police. They wear these funny, black bus driver hats, and absolutely no one pays them any attention. It's clear that they're powerless. I think that they should be armed with hammers, and if a vehicle fails to yield the traffic police can pound away on the car's hood until the desired result is achieved. Think of it as an instant traffic fine, and I guarantee it'll work because Iraqi's love their cars, no air conditioning and all.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cogito Ergo Sum

An old, knotted tree stump

René Descartes' "I think, therefor I am".

I get a lot of people that ask me about meditation. I tell them that I don't meditate, I practice something called zazen. What's the difference, they ask? Meditation is something that you do with your mind. Zazen is without the mind. "No mind"; it sounds like a quote from The Last Samurai.

According to ole René you exist because you're thinking. What happens during those brief moments between thoughts? Do we cease to exist? For me, that's where the practice of zazen begins, at those brief intervals between thoughts, where nothing is going on, where everything is just... just.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Middle Way At DXB

I travel quite a bit and when I do I try to be kind and compassionate to my other travelers, which often equates to allowing people go in front of me in line, mostly women, the elderly, children, etc... As I was transiting Dubai International Airport (DXB) this morning I realized that if I continued to be compassionate and accommodating that I would get completely run-over and never make my flight. There comes a point where you have to be assertive and hold your ground against the rising tide of burka-clad women that are deftly maneuvering to get in front of you, or the lady pushing the empty stroller that expects you to yield to her, never asking or acknowledging.

I have a hard time with finding the correct balance between compassion and practicality, and I suspect many other people do as well. There comes a point where you need to be a little selfish, or you'll never get to where you're trying to go, especially while traveling within the Arab culture. I feel badly about it, but I think that in this instance this is the Buddhist precept of the Middle Way, or in other words not extremely compassionate nor selfish. In short, the Middle Way differs depending on the airport that you're in :)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Cross atop an old Spanish mission, shot against a blue Texas sky.

My son recently went through a phase where he was collecting McDonald's Happy Meal Transformer toys. At one point we had to stop into three different restaurants in order to find the ever-elusive 'Optimus Prime', the one that would complete his collection. I wasn't happy with the whole thing, but he was being exceptionally well-behaved, so we didn't mind the extended search. I marked it down as a 4-year old boy's obsession.

Just the other day I was researching the '10 best samurai movies' according to the list. I realized that I owned 9 of them, and the one I didn't have was located at a Barnes and Noble some miles away. Jumping in the car I rushed to find the missing DVD, and called my wife along the way. She quickly pointed out that it's obvious where my son gets his obsessions from. Oooops!

I'm off to the Middle East tonight. Next stop, the United Arab Emirates.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Let 'er Fly And Hope For The Best

My four-year old and I are currently wrestling for TV time. He's watching all of the prescribed language building shows that teach him how to sound out words, spell, and build sentences. I, on the other hand, am struggling with learning the Japanese language and prefer to watch NHK, the Japanese news network. I'm also working hard sounding out words, spelling, and building rudimentary sentences. Right now I think my son is winning as he can spell just about any word that he can sound out, while I inadvertently offended someone in a Japanese restaurant the other day by blurting out the wrong noun-adjective combination. I take solace in the fact that I speak Spanish as well, so I'm one up on him :)

All this is to say, I marvel at how quickly my son can pick up the idiosyncrasies of the English language. He makes me laugh with all of the stuff that he comes up with. My battle with Japanese is not as colorful, but probably just as humorous to a native speaker. Like most adults learning a new task, I over-think things, being afraid of making mistakes makes me hesitant and unsure. Kids don't think at all, and they're quite happy to make as many mistakes as needed, free from the social pressures of being correct and proper all of the time. They just let it fly and hope for the best. I'm envious.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

You're Nuts!

Divergent path at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens

I need to work on attachments, or more specifically the attachments that I have to my own ideas, opinions, thoughts, etc... like many people, when I hear or read something that runs contrary to what I believe I get excited and want to blurt out, "you're nuts, it's not like that at all!" Thankfully, age and maturity have tempered my desire to speak out on every offending occasion, but I can still feel the wave of emotion building inside as I juxtapose what I'm hearing to my own beliefs that I've formed a great friendship with.

If I weren't so close and content with my own opinions I believe that I would be able to hear others better. All the while a person is talking to me I'm forming counter-arguments in my head and not really listening to what is being said. It's as if life is one great debate; a competition with winners and losers, and I need to be on the winning side.

I often wonder if countries and leaders are doing the same thing. We get so attached to our own little points of view that we fail to see or hear what is really going on around us. The next time you see you're least favorite personality on the television, presidential candidates are great for this, be mindful of what is taking place inside your head; are you truly listening with an open mind or have a running battle with words and ideas?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Friendly Competition

A shot up the exterior of the hotel into the blue Texas sky.

Both my wife and I are pretty well-traveled people. The only problem is that we've very rarely traveled together. Our recent anniversary getaway took us to San Antonio, Texas for four days, and during the entire event we tried to "out travel" one another in a sort of friendly competition. Perks from her work within the airline industry got us free round-trip airline tickets, which I immediately upgraded to business class. She got online and found a great deal on a hotel, which I trumped using hotel membership points from recent business travel, getting several nights free. We got the car through a rental company that I also have a relationship with, which was upgraded from an Impala to a GPS-equipped Infiniti G 35. At one point we were walking around San Antonio's River Walk together and came to the conclusion that we had spent about $5.00 for coffee to get here, and that was about it.

Heading back to the Middle East soon... and I thought Texas was hot!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Winging It With .XLS

When I first met my wife she was the poster child for Type B personalities. Early on I asked her what we were going to do on a particular weekend, and she replied, "We'll just wing it". I'll tell you right now that hurt my "have a plan for everything", then-military mind. I had never heard such blasphemous words in my life . Well, despite that fact, I ended up marrying her.

Now here we are several years later, I'm retired from the military and have pretty much gorged myself at the Type B Kool-Aid punch bowl. My wife now comes up with this plan to get away for our anniversary. We're going to put the 4-year old up on "sister-in-law ebay", and head to the airport with no particular plan whatsoever as to where we'll go. We're just going to "wing it" as it were. Perfect.

Last night I catch my wife making an Excel spreadsheet with all of the likely vacation destinations complete with flight numbers, departure times, return flights, and airline load factors. What happened to, "we'll just wing it"?

She claims that the spreadsheet will greatly assist us in our "whim of the moment" vacation. I don't know, but you don't normally here the words "whim" and "spreadsheet" in the same sentence.

More to follow. I'll let you know where we land.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Back To The Basics

I've got a virus and it's beginning to upset me. No, it's nothing contagious or deadly, it's just a glitch in my bagpiping technique. A simple and basic movement that I've done a million times has suddenly gone astray and now I have to work to get it back under control. My piping instructor, who is normally pretty understated, even commented, "Wow, that sounds like shit".

These things come and go with any physical skill; they're nothing new to golfers, place kickers, pitchers, or anyone that requires a finely tuned repetitive motion. I've often experienced viruses on the range when my shooting skills just headed south for no good reason. I've gotten them in the pool when my stroke fell apart. They arise out of nowhere and I have to struggle with the basics again to get things back under control. It's hard on the ego to go back to square one and break things down all over again, practicing slowly, repetitively, over and over and over. I want to just charge ahead, but that's how these things develop in the first place, by not paying close enough attention to the basic skills.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Playing To Your Strengths

I'm not sure why I like this shot, I just do. It's taken from outside a church on Prince Edward Island following a wedding.

I tell people that before I joined the Army, twenty some odd years ago, I never witnessed a sunrise. Since then I don't think I've missed one. Like my father, I've always been an early riser. I like to get up and get my workout in, whether that's CrossFit or at the Aikido dojo, and once it's done it sets me up for the entire day. I don't think that there's any feeling like having worked out hard and then heading off to start the day.

That's my particular internal clock. Others are just the opposite and comfortably stay up to all hours of the night, struggling to wake up and make their way to school or work on time. Either one is fine, but I've learned over the years to play to my strengths. In graduate school I would wake up at 3:00 a.m. and study, read, and write until class began in the late morning. After attending class I'd head to the local stream to go fly fishing while my classmates trotted off to the library to start their daily routine.

I think that it's important to recognize your strengths and take advantage of them, while at the same time working on your weaknesses. A bagpipe teacher once told me that you should take you're weakness at and make it into a strength. In some ways I believe that's the definition of discipline, and the secret to becoming accomplished at whatever you choose to do. It all starts with having the wisdom to recognize one from the other and being honest with yourself about both.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Bodyguards; A Public Perception

Serious looking statue in one of the Charlottetown squares on Prince Edward Island.

I often get asked what I do for work, and my reply is simple; I’m a bodyguard. From that point onward the conversation always goes in one of two directions. The first is that “You must be good at martial arts”, and the other is “Can you tell me who you guard?” I always answer the martial arts question with, “No but I can run fast. I always tell my clients that if you see me running something has gone terribly wrong and you should try to keep up”. Both of those questions highlight the public’s perception of the executive protection industry. One, that you hang out with Angelina and Brad, and two, that you’re something just short of Bruce Lee. Both couldn’t be further from the truth, at least for me.

While certainly some protectors have high-profile, very visible clients, the vast majority of bodyguards provide services for people that no one would ever recognize on the street. From a protection point of view, by the way, that’s a good thing.

The whole martial arts thing always makes me laugh, and while I practice Aikido I have a hard time envisioning when I would use it in a protection role. If I’m whipping out my best version of yokomenuchi kotegaeshi, who’s watching the client? It’s always better to cover and evacuate; Bodyguarding 101.

This leads me to another idiosyncrasy of mine; I’m a “bodyguard” because that gets most people closer to the ballpark than say an “executive/close protection specialist/agent”. To each his own I guess, but every time I’ve ever used some cool sounding moniker I’ve always had to refer back to “bodyguard” in my inevitable explanation which then raises the question, why didn’t I go there to begin with? I guess I’m simple like that.